By Anj Handa

Women at all levels frequently relate their concern about the language used to describe them. Many women experience frustration about being interrupted, ignored or invalidated. Alternatively, it can be the reverse: having our ideas repeated back to us, or attributed to the man who speaks next.

A study by James Broadbridge, University of Birmingham, entitled ‘An Investigation into Differences between Women’s and Men’s Speech,’ revealed that men are more likely to interrupt and are less likely to be interrupted.

What causes this? A lack of self-awareness; an inability to recognise that women are capable of discussing weighty issues; a combination; or something else?

In “You Just Don’t Understand,” Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University, seeks to explain this concept. She suggests that men talk to determine and achieve status; while women talk to determine and achieve connection.

Whilst this may seem like a generalisation, I’ve observed this dynamic play out time and time again in conversations between men and women. I’ve also witnessed the power play amongst groups of men where there was at least one ‘alpha male.’

Findings from a survey of US and UK professional women in ‘Hear and Now,’ a book on public speaking by Chris Davidson, also support her theory.

Personal Experiences of Being Interruped

Here are some of my own experiences within the last year.

  1. Discussion with friends on Brexit. A male friend who voted Leave raised points about employment, skills requirements and immigration. Despite the fact that I have policy expertise in this field – I’ve even spoken at conferences in the US and Europe on the subject – he simply spoke louder and louder to drown me out.Having had enough of being interrupted, I reminded him of my professional experience. Still, he persisted and recommended reading more on Wikipedia (because *obviously* that’s a reliable and credible source of information).
  2. Following the announcement of Caudrilla’s fracking operations being given the go-ahead, I shared a news article on my Facebook page. I added my own commentary with a few disturbing facts that I had learned about fracking, evidence-based facts from credible sources.A friend, a male partner at a consultancy firm, added underneath “This is a desperate post.” That old chestnut… the ‘hysterical female.’ The ironic thing was that he actually agreed with me. He eventually apologised, but not before ‘mansplaining’ what fracking entails.
  3. I recently gave the inspirational, pre-lunch talk at a conference in Leeds. During networking breaks, while I was deep in conversation with someone, a man (different each time) interrupted, without asking if it was OK to join the conversation. They then proceeded to change the subject, addressing the other male. This happened three times at the same event.

Unconscious Bias

I’m not bashing man. In fact, I’ve found that many men are dismayed when their behaviour is pointed out. It’s often unconscious. Soraya Chemaly, who describes herself as a feminist and writer, describes the root of the problem as:

‘Good old-fashioned sexism expressed in gendered socialization and a default cultural preference for institutionalized male domination of public life.’

Further, I’ve observed that the men most likely to indulge in this behaviour appear to fall within a particular age bracket, fifty plus. I’ve mostly encountered it from males who work in certain sectors; including construction, law, utilities, banking/insurance and politics.

While I’ve shared my own examples above, international public figures aren’t above this either…

The Characterisation of Public Figures

A Hysterical Woman?

Recently, Amal Clooney, was branded with the ‘hysterical woman’ tag by the New York Post. The headline read ‘Amal Clooney threw a tantrum while meeting with Iraq’s UN ambassador’ and described her tone as ‘dismissive’ and ‘lecturing.’

Woman who are passionate about a topic are frequently portrayed as ‘having a tantrum’. Click To Tweet Other variations include ‘hysterical,’ ‘desperate,’ ‘feisty’ or similar, even when they’re sticking to facts. I covered this ‘likeability penalty’ in my blog for the RSA.

Clooney has been legally representing Yazidi people and the meeting was about bringing captured ISIS fighters to justice. Her request to meet with the PM had been turned down, so she had to settle for the UN Ambassador instead. Should it come as a surprise that she chose to be forceful about such a serious matter?

Above her station

Moving on to Michelle Obama, who gave (in my opinion) the most impressive speech during the US Presidential debates. With dignity, poise and emotion, she called out Trump’s behaviour without actually saying his name.
Her skillful move made it (almost) impossible for the Trump camp to attack her. She’s a master of Emotional Correctness. If you missed her speech, you can read the transcript here or watch a short replay below.

Changing the Dialogue

I’ve worked in Equality and Diversity since 2003. I’m tired of the same old dialogue. I’ve had enough of reports and conferences, which tell us nothing new. I’m fed up of being interrupted. It’s time to disrupt the pattern.

While I don’t have all the answers, I have found some strategies that have worked for me – head to our Cheat Sheets section in Inspired Writing and download your free guides to influence.



Anj Handa is the Founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers. She helps women to speak up: for themselves, for others, and for social issues.